On Thursday, in a shock move, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced he would be leaving the Trump administration, adding yet another dimension of chaos to an administration that recently underwent a chaotic search for a new chief of staff, is in the midst of a government shutdown battle over funding for a border wall, is undergoing a stock market slump, and announced a troop withdrawal from Syria. President Trump attempted to put a good face on Mattis’ departure, tweeting:
Mattis, however, released a letter that sounded a lot less sanguine:
Mattis’s letter is brutal. In it, he states that he believes that “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehesive system of alliances and partnerships…Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world.” And he says that he believes the United States should be “resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries about whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” specifically citing Russia and China.
Then he drops the bombshell: he believes that these core ideas are in tension with Trump’s perspective. He writes, “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
This letter fits with the account of The New York Times, which reported today that Mattis was resigning in protest at Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. According to the Times:
Officials said Mr. Mattis went to the White House on Thursday afternoon in a last attempt to convince Mr. Trump to keep American troops in Syria. He was rebuffed, and told the president that he was resigning as a result.
Now, there were real strategic differences between Mattis and Trump in which Trump was correct – for example, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. But Mattis was also a bulwark in favor of NATO, as well as a stronger position with regard to North Korea.
None of this is a good sign for the administration. But little this week has been.